Perfusionist Blaine Johnson (seated) chats with Lindblom senior Justin Polk (at right) as they view a surgical camera monitor. Credit: Provided

HYDE PARK — A South Side education and mentorship program is encouraging young people — particularly those who face structural barriers — to pursue health care careers by offering experience in all aspects of the field.

The Heart and Vascular Center mentorship program links high school juniors and seniors with doctors, nurses, researchers, executives and other professionals. The University of Chicago program targets Black and Brown students and others from communities underrepresented in health care.

There is no program fee and no academic requirement to apply — students just a letter of recommendation from someone who isn’t a relative. If accepted, students attend regular meetings, workshops and activities with their mentors and other staff for two years.

Fifteen students were accepted to last year’s inaugural group, and the program will begin its second application period with a virtual kick-off event 4:30 p.m. Friday. To register, click here.

Applications will be accepted starting Saturday through Nov. 23.

“We’re exposing them to a variety of careers in the health care field they wouldn’t have thought about otherwise, and giving them a framework for how to accomplish that goal,” said Bryan Smith, UChicago Medicine cardiologist and program co-director.

Emergency medicine physician Dr. Abdullah Pratt demonstrates how to perform chest compressions during a mentorship meeting. Credit: Provided

The program takes a wide focus on health care, with educational sessions about medicine, anatomy, surgery, research, administration and more.

Once students determine their field of interest, they link up with a mentor who they’ll shadow at work and regularly meet with about professional and personal skills.

Justin Polk, a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, has helped with clinical research assignments, written abstracts for academic articles and even watched doctors perform a shunt procedure on a pig through the program.

Those experiences helped Polk figure out his ideal career path. As a Black student, the mentorship program “provides great exposure to underrepresented communities such as my own,” he said.

Prior to participating, “I didn’t exactly know what path I wanted to take,” Polk said. Over the past year, he’s figured out a plan that would take him from an undergraduate biochemistry degree to medical school, with the goal of becoming a cardiac surgeon.

Justin Polk poses for a photo with a statue of W.E.B. DuBois during a college tour in Atlanta. Credit: Provided

“This is an excellent program for juniors and seniors to go into [whether] they are sure they want to go into health care or not sure,” he said. “You’ll get a lot of exposure, a lot of experience, a lot of connections — and it’s a lot of fun.”

Balancing the program with life as an upperclassman in the pandemic is “not easy at all,” Polk said. As he works toward his high school diploma, he also performs community service as a junior member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

Polk praised Smith and co-director Aaron Manewith for running a program that’s “so understanding and so compassionate” to students’ needs.

“We tell students always that school comes first, jobs come first, families come first,” Smith said. “This is supposed to be a supplement to everything else in their life.”

The program is intended to be accessible, with “pretty light” barriers to entry, Smith said.

Organizers prioritize “passion and interest” in health care over grades and other traditional measures of success, which may be harder to attain while attending school in disinvested communities like West Englewood and others around the South Side, he said.

The young mentees receive a free laptop and other resources to ensure finances don’t stop them from participating, Smith said. Program participants may also take a $15-an-hour summer internship position with UChicago Medicine.

“It’s important to make sure we are training and recruiting people in health care fields who look like the patients that we serve in order to improve some of these inequities in care that we already see,” he said.

The two-year program allows newly accepted seniors to stay in the program even after they graduate high school. The education and long-term relationships offered through the program are key to making health care a more diverse profession, Smith said.

“It’s so clear to me that all [students] really need is exposure to these health fields in order to have the career that they dream of,” Smith said. “Most of these kids just need that spark.”

Cardiologist and mentorship program co-director Dr. Bryan Smith gives a lecture at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine in January 2016. Credit: James Haba

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